The trade market has less star power than it used to -- here's why
The best players almost always became free agents as recently as 10 years ago
But the business side of the game has changed radically in just a decade
As a result, small-market teams are better able to retain their young star players
The tension as we approach this year's trade deadline is a tangible thing, something you can see, feel, taste and smell -- something that pervades the entire game, overshadowing the nightly highlights. The possibility that Felix Hernandez could be changing the NL Central race, that Hanley Ramirez could be taking his talents out of South Beach, than Ryan Zimmerman could be dealt to...
...wait a minute, none of those players are available. That they aren't is one of the signature shifts in MLB over the past decade, one that affects not just the trade deadline, but all aspects of team-building, from draft day through the free-agent market.
Left to their own devices, Hernandez, Ramirez and Zimmerman all would have become eligible for free agency after the 2011 season. All three had cups of coffee at the end of 2005 and made it to the majors to stay at the beginning of 2006, so they'll all be crossing the six-year service time mark this September. There was a time that players of that caliber playing for non-contending and/or small-market teams would routinely become available in that sixth season, and occasionally in their fifth, as their owners and GMs looked to get some kind of value for players whom they likely could not sign on the open market.
The best players in baseball almost always became free agents as recently as a decade ago. Of the top 15 players in the game from 1995 through 2004 (as measured by FanGraphs' WAR), 12 became free agents at some point, including the top four on the list. You could, if you had money, patience and savvy, build very good teams by signing the best free agents. That's not the case any longer: Of the top 15 players in MLB from 2001 through 2010, just four have ever been available as free agents.
The business side of the game has changed radically in just a decade. Successive collective bargaining agreements have attempted to tamp down the high end of the payroll scale by increasing the amount of money that the top revenue-generating teams share with the ones at the bottom and penalizing the biggest spenders for their profligacy. The other effect of revenue sharing, though, is increasing the amount of money that teams in the lower half of the income game have available to them, and those teams have often -- if not always or even enough -- used that money to sign their stars. Hernandez, Ramirez and Zimmerman all inked long-term deals that bought out years of arbitration eligibility and tied the player to the team past their sixth year of service. No, the Yankees can't sign Hernandez this winter, and they almost certainly won't be trading for him this summer, but it's not unfair to say that they're paying for him, at least a little bit.
It's not just about the rules, though. MLB as a whole has done a better job of raising money that gets distributed evenly, chipping away at the advantages that the large-market teams have in local revenue. The money machine that is MLB.com has been a big part of this. Pushing for new ballparks in so many markets has been an equalizer -- that strategy dates to the 1990s and was a factor in the success of teams such as the Indians, Giants and Brewers over the last 15 years. The Twins, having moved to Target Field last season, have set payroll records the last two years because of the money they're making in their new park.
Beyond that, the influence of sabermetrics and a more sophisticated approach to the business side of the game is in evidence. Those Jacobs Field Indians, under then-GM John Hart, pioneered the practice of signing homegrown players to long-term deals, assuming risk and gaining the upside. Innovative at the time, the practice is now industry standard, especially for teams in smaller markets. Twenty years ago, having a Troy Tulowitzki or Ryan Braun signed into the next decade would have been unheard of. A long-term deal for a player with three weeks of experience, like the one Evan Longoria signed his rookie year, would have been laughed at. These contracts, though, have changed the competitive marketplace: Teams retain their young stars, which helps them on and off the field, and teams not developing young stars fall behind by not getting access to them in the free-agent market -- or at the trade deadline in the season before. Teams know that the money spent preemptively on a great player already in their organization is a better investment than waiting to try to retain him when a competitive market raises the price.
It's not that great players, difference-makers, are never free agents and never available at the trade deadline, but there's usually some story when it happens. Cliff Lee had all but washed out of the AL before changing his approach and becoming a star. He had racked up so much service time that a long-term deal was unlikely, and Lee made it clear that he was intending to become a free agent. That's why he was traded three times in 12 months, twice during the season in deadline deals that helped his new teams reach the World Series. Older players can be moved, as we saw three years ago with Manny Ramirez and this week with Carlos Beltran. But superstars in their prime are so often signed by their teams that the trade market becomes about the next tier down. So instead of Hernandez or Zimmerman, we're talking about Wandy Rodriguez and Hunter Pence. The market is defined by who isn't there as much as by who is.
You could argue that the changes to business practices, revenue generation and revenue sharing since the strike that have enabled these circumstances are Bud Selig's greatest success. Teams should be able to build around the great players they develop, sell those players to their fans and retain those players for a long time. There is no team in baseball that can't afford to do what the Mariners, Marlins and Nationals have done to keep their stars. As great as that is, though, the cost is in a trade market that has a bit less liquidity, a bit less star power and a bit less impact.